What do weight loss after Christmas, expired peanut butter and learning Spanish have in common?
Apparently, they all take around 5 months.
Which seems like a long time to hold onto festive pudge and an exceedingly short time to learn a language.
Spanish is considered relatively easy for English speakers: it has 1000s of similar words (fantástico!) and the grammar, pronunciation and spelling is simpler than in many other languages.
That’s why the US Foreign Service Institute – the guys who train diplomats – rank Spanish as one of the fastest languages to learn for English speakers, together with others like French, Italian and Dutch.
The FSI estimate that languages in this group can take 23-24 weeks to reach professional working proficiency. At this level you can:
- understand almost everything people say when they speak at normal speed
- communicate comfortably in most situations
- use a broad vocabulary and rarely stop to search for words
In other words, you can function perfectly well in most situations. Let’s call that fluent.
The easiest languages for English speakers
Languages which have a lot in common with your native language are usually easier than those which are very different. English is a Germanic language, like Dutch and Swedish, but it also has a lot in common with Romance languages like French and Spanish. No surprise then, that the other languages on the Foreign Service Institute list come from one of these two groups.
The Germanic Languages: Afrikaans, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish
Why are they easy? These languages come from the same language family as English, so they share loads of vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation features. The ones in this list don’t have complicated case systems like in German, making them a little easier to pick up. Here’s an example of how similar languages from this family can be to English:
How to say “hello/hi, welcome”
Afrikaans: Hallo, welkom
Dutch: Hallo, welkom
Danish: Hallo, velkommen
Norwegian: Hei, velkommen
Swedish: Hej, välkommen
Native speakers of these languages tend to speak fantastic English, so it can be more difficult (but not impossible) to find opportunities to practise.
The Romance Languages: Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian
Why are they easy? Romance languages have their roots in Latin. As the majority of English vocabulary (58%) comes from French or Latin, when you start learning a Romance language, you’ll realise that you can already say loads of words by simply putting on a hammy accent. Je suis sérieuse. Did a little pout as I was writing that, to make it more French.
Spanish, Italian and Romanian have simpler spelling systems and fewer vowel sounds than English, making pronunciation comparatively straightforward. Here’s an example of how similar the Romance languages can be to English:
How to say “my family”
Spanish: Mi familia
French: Ma famille
Italian: La mia famiglia
Portuguese: Minha família
Romanian: Familia mea
While the grammar is easier than languages like German or Russian, you’ll still need to get to grips with verb conjugations, that is, when verbs have different forms depending on who’s doing them: for example, I sleep in Italian is “dormo”, while you sleep is “dormi”. Nouns in Romance languages also have gender, which can feel a bit loco at first. For example in Spanish, the fork “el tenedor” is masculine, while the table “la mesa” is feminine.
The easiest language to learn
The above list is not exhaustive. I could have included less widely spoken Romance languages like Catalan and Galician, amongst others. And the easiest language for you depends on other things, which we’ll talk about shortly.
But wait – didn’t the title say 11?
There’s one language which is even closer to English, and arguably the simplest of all for English speakers. Do you know which one? The answer will be revealed at the end of this post.
Just how easy are the easiest languages?
If it’s possible to learn fluent Spanish in 5 months, how do you explain all those people (including me) who studied for years at school and learned little more than ¿dónde está la biblioteca?
There’s a catch to the whole 5 month thing.
The diplomats who learn Spanish faster than you can hold onto a jar of peanut butter spend 5 hours in the classroom and do 3-4 hours homework every day. That’s like a full time job: 8 – 9 hours a day, 5 days a week over a 24 week period.
It takes them around 1000 hours to speak fluent Spanish.
Most people don’t have 8 hours a day to study, so you’ll probably need to spread those hours out (peanut butter pun intended). If you study for an hour a day, it could take you 3 years to learn Spanish to such a high level.
This easy language is suddenly starting to sound like a lot of hard work.
Of course, these figures won’t be the same for everyone. It depends on how motivated you are, how much experience you have and the techniques you use. Benny Lewis from fluent in 3 months says you can learn faster, with the right approach. But even the king of speedy language learning recognises that it takes 400 – 600 hours.
By the most optimistic of estimates, an easy language will still take you a good few hundred hours to learn.
What makes a language easy or difficult?
I’m guessing you’re here because you like the idea of learning a language without too much hard work. I’m with you on that one.
Most of the time, I’d rather eat my own shoe than memorise irregular verbs.
But how do you know if a language is going to be hard work or not?
Most people look at how long it takes. From the Foreign Service Institute language categories, you could say that Spanish is easier than Chinese because Spanish takes an estimated 575-600 hours’ classroom time while Mandarin Chinese takes an estimated 2200 hours’ classroom time.
So we know Chinese takes a longer. Almost four times as long. But does that make it more difficult?
Difficult is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as:
- Needing much skill or effort
- Characterised by or causing hardships or problems
The word difficult, conjures up images of the fun police. It makes me imagine yawning over school books until my eyes water and forcing myself to do things I don’t like.
It makes me imagine a battle between the ambitious part of my brain that wants to learn a language and the Homer Simpson side that wants to watch TV and drink beer. And feeling guilty when Homer inevitably wins.
Language learning shouldn’t be like that.
Challenging? Yes. Time consuming? Of course.
Why the “no pain no gain!” approach doesn’t always work
If it feels so difficult you’d rather chow down on your shoelaces than study, you’re doing it wrong. Sometimes, the harder you try, the harder a language is to learn. There are a few reasons for this.
You know that feeling when you’re bombarded with so much information that you can’t take anything in?
Working memory is our ability to temporarily hold new information in our minds while we use it to carry out tasks – like keeping numbers in your head as you add them up. A bit like a mental jotter pad.
We use it a lot when learning a language, for example to:
- Keep in mind the meaning of a word you’ve just looked up when trying to decipher a sentence.
- Remember what you heard at the beginning of a sentence as you listen to the rest.
- Remember what you want to say as you paste together grammar and vocabulary to express your ideas.
Our working memory can only process a relatively small amount of information at any given time. Trying to do too much in one go – like calculating 6897 x 5785 or figure out the meaning of a sentence with too many unfamiliar words – can lead to overload, which gets in the way of learning.
Tension gets in the way of learning
If you’re pushing yourself to do something that feels too difficult, you’ll probably end up feeling frustrated or stressed out. This works against you because stress interferes with learning in a big way. Research suggests that we learn languages better when we’re chillaxed.
If it’s too painful, you’ll probably give up
If learning a language always feels like uphill struggle, you’ll end up dreading it. Willpower doesn’t last forever: most people will give up sooner or later if they don’t enjoy what they’re doing.
How to make any language easy to learn
I’m learning Mandarin Chinese at the moment and it feels easy.
By easy, I do not mean fast. I don’t even mean that I’m good at it. It takes thousands of hours to reach an advanced level in Mandarin Chinese and I’ve still got a long way to go.
But it feels easy because I’m learning at a pace that works for me. I’m challenging myself, but not straining. And I’m motivated because I spend my study time doing things I like.
Easy or difficult doesn’t depend on how many hours it takes, or how complicated the grammar is. It doesn’t even depend on how good or bad you are at it. It depends on how you feel while you’re doing it.
If your idea of learning a language is spending hundreds of hours with your nose to the grindstone, you’re going to make yourself miserable (if you don’t quit first). Every language will feel difficult, from Spanish to Mandarin Chinese and everything in between.
But, if you can find your learning sweet spot, where you’re challenging yourself but not frustrated or overwhelmed, any language will feel easy, whether it’s Chinese, Japanese, Arabic or Korean. Sure, they’ll take a long time, but they won’t feel difficult.
Instead of asking “which language is the easiest to learn?”, a more helpful question is:
“how can I approach the language I want to learn so it feels easier?”
With this in mind, here are 5 ways to make any language easy to learn:
1. Concentrate on the bricks, not the wall
When Will Smith was 12, his dad knocked down the brick wall in front of his business and asked him to rebuild it. It took him over a year, but he built it. And it taught him an important lesson about how to approach challenges without getting overwhelmed. He says:
“You don’t set out to build a wall. You don’t say ‘I’m going to build the biggest, baddest, greatest wall that’s ever been built.’ You don’t start there. You say, ‘I’m going to lay this brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid. You do that every single day. And soon you have a wall.”
Learning a language like Chinese or Arabic probably feels tougher than building the biggest, baddest wall that’s ever been built. But don’t get distracted by the big picture.
Just focus on laying one brick at a time. In each study session, build on what you already know by learning one more thing, then one more. If you keep it up for long enough, you’ll step back and realise that you’ve learned fluent Chinese (or built a nice new wall in your garden).
2. Use the Goldilocks rule to get the level just right.
Imagine trying to talk about politics or read a newspaper in the language you’ve only just started learning. You’d probably get discouraged and give up pretty quickly.
Now imagine spending several lessons learning to count from one to ten. You’d probably get bored and give up pretty quickly.
In his article The Goldilocks Rule: How to Stay Motivated in Life and in Business James Clear talks about the importance of setting goals which are just right: achievable enough that you don’t feel discouraged, but challenging enough that you don’t get bored.
Finding the optimal challenge level, when you’re working hard, but not too hard is key to staying motivated.
Keep this in mind when you’re using textbooks and other resources. If you’re losing interest, could it be that the content is too easy or difficult?
Aim for something that stretches you just beyond your current level, without being overwhelming.
Another way to make difficult tasks more appropriate for your level is to break them down into smaller chunks. For example, if studying grammar for 30 minutes feels too hard, why not go for 15 minutes instead? Or even 5?
A few minutes can add up to a lot of progress, when you do it every day.
3. Do something you like
Boredom is the first stop on the way to quitsville. The more you enjoy your study sessions, the less difficult the language will feel. If your current study materials don’t do it for you, find something that does. This article on 32 fun ways to learn a language (that actually work) has a few ideas to get you started.
4. Stay in the game
Over the 100s (or 1000s) of hours it takes to learn a language, you’ll probably face a few dips in motivation. It’s a good idea to have some strategies in place to help you stick it out when this happens. Two of my faves are:
- Don’t break the chain: Put a cross on the calendar for every day you study. Seeing the chain get longer and longer gives you a sense of satisfaction – once you’ve build up a chain, you won’t want to break it by missing a day.
- Record your progress: Language learning happens little by little and progress can be imperceptible in the short term. This is discouraging because it feels like your hard work isn’t paying off. But if you could look back at yourself a few months ago, you’d notice an improvement and feel more confident about your progress. Try recording yourself speaking, so you can look back and see how far you’ve come.
5. Is it difficult or just new?
This is my favourite question to ask students when they complain that something is hard. Because usually, they consider my question for a second and say “ah, it’s just new”.
Think about tying your shoelaces. It’s easy now, but you probably struggled at the beginning.
It takes time to develop a new skill. That doesn’t mean it’s too hard, you just need practice.
But if you think it’s going to be hard, it probably will be. Research suggests that when we expect tasks to be difficult, we’re more likely to lose motivation.
Your attitude to learning matters. By adopting the mantra “it’s not difficult, it’s just new” you can get the benefit of what psychologist Carol Dweck calls the growth mindset: instead of thinking “this is too hard”, you can turn your focus to a little, but powerful word: “yet” – “I don’t know how to do this, yet”.
But with perseverance, you will.
Did you guess which language is the closest to English? It’s a language called Frisian, which is mostly spoken in Friesland in the north of the Netherlands. Frisian is actually a group of three, closely related languages, but when people say Frisian, they’re usually referring to West Frisian, as it’s the most commonly spoken. Here’s an example of how similar West Frisian and English can be:
English: Bread, butter and green cheese.
West Frisian: Brea, bûter en griene tsiis
Over to you: Which language are you learning at the moment? How could you apply one of the 5 suggestions above to make it feel easier? Let us know in the comments below!